Dan Payne

Can an independent win?

Angus King, left, in 1995, former independent governor of Maine, had a lot more going for him when he was campaigning than Tim Cahill. Angus King, left, in 1995, former independent governor of Maine, had a lot more going for him when he was campaigning than Tim Cahill.
By Dan Payne
March 31, 2010

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HAVING ADVISED an independent candidate, Angus King, who won the governorship of Maine a few years ago, I am automatically one of the nation’s leading experts on independent candidacies. To size up independent Tim Cahill’s chances, I spoke with King and, with the clarity of hindsight, we drew up lessons for success.

■ Choose your opponents carefully. “You may not be able to pick your opponents but you can pick your races,’’ Angus said. We got perennial Democratic candidate, Joseph Brennan. He had held or run for just about every office in Maine. We also got a weak Republican, Susan Collins. Her own party tried to knock her off the ballot — well before she became a US Senator. Neither Deval Patrick nor Charlie Baker is dead wood.

■ Be credible. Several things add up to credibility: true independence, money, integrity, big-name endorsements, respect from the media, and good poll results. Angus, like Cahill, had been a Democrat. But unlike Cahill, he had never run for or held public office. Angus was so scrupulously unbiased he was regularly enlisted to moderate televised political debates. An early King supporter was the CEO of Bath Iron Works, then Maine’s largest employer. Unlike Cahill, Angus could credibly make the case that he was untainted by the poisonous politics in the state capital.

■ Be an outsider. When Angus King met Jesse Ventura, onetime independent governor of Minnesota, he realized they had only one thing in common: they were both outsiders. When state government is in crisis, an outsider looks like a team of first responders. Cahill has held office continuously since 1987, as a Quincy city councilor, county treasurer, and state treasurer. No outsider he.

■ Go all in. Angus was not independently wealthy but he sold his business to finance about half of his $1.5 million campaign — a lot of money in 1995 Maine. Cahill has $3 million in pricey Massachusetts.

■ Avoid scandal. Angus was scandal-free. The Globe has exposed Cahill’s ties to a man who managed millions in state pension investments and raised big money for Cahill from out-of-state interests. Separately, federal regulators fined a Texas securities firm $470,000 because one of its executives made illegal contributions to Cahill. Teabaggers, you have officially been warned.

■ Tread on familiar ground. James Longley was the independent governor of Maine from 1975 to 1979. Maine was independent presidential candidate Ross Perot’s best state; he got 30 percent in 1992 there, beating Bush the elder. Voting independent isn’t a nutty thing to do in Maine, but it’s a rarity in Massachusetts.

■ Show gains in polls. Our best move came months before the election. At the urging of shrewd Maine pollster Chris Potholm, we borrowed the Democratic and Republican primaries in the spring to launch our TV commercials. We could not wait until the fall to introduce Angus.

The bet paid off. A widely publicized poll taken right after the primaries showed Angus in second place, right behind Democrat Brennan. His credibility was never again questioned. Cahill has yet to poll better than a distant third.

■ Pick your spot. Cahill has running room on the right ever since Christy Mihos started peddling rubber checks, including to his own campaign. Cahill may come to resemble former Democratic governor Ed King who famously “put all the hate groups into one pot and let it boil,’’ and knocked off sitting governor Mike Dukakis. Patrick resembles Dukakis from that campaign. He’s liberal, reform-minded, has poor relations with the legislature, and doesn’t listen. He feels unappreciated but his story, in Hollywood terms, is low concept — hard to grasp.

Charlie Baker is channeling former BU president John Silber, a short-fused autocrat who kicked away the governorship when he melted down on TV during an interview with a popular anchorwoman. An astute academic observed: While Baker has displayed Silber’s infallibility complex, he hasn’t yet acquired Silber’s chief asset, a large and intense electoral base.

To capture that base, Cahill has to go right, where Baker is headed. But Cahill’s appearing on far-right nutball Glenn Beck’s TV show to say new health care legislation will bankrupt the nation and Massachusetts made him truly independent — of his senses.

Dan Payne is a Boston-area media consultant who has worked for Democratic candidates around the country and one independent.

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